As a beginner to barbecue and smoking meat, the entire process can feel super intimidating.
While on the outside, it's simply using hardwood or charcoal to slowly cook food, there are a number of nuances and working with meat and even a smoker that is forgiving to rookie mistakes is very beneficial.
The number one mistake that every beginner falls victim to is the amount of smoke to use.
Most beginners who smoke meat are apt to use either wood chips or chunks as apposed to sticks - this is mainly because you're limited by the type of smoker you're using. Sticks/logs are reserved for offset smokers where-as chips and chunks are used for everything else.
A lot of beginners think you need huge, white, billowing clouds of smoke. However, that couldn't be further from the truth.
What you're after is "thin blue smoke," more commonly referred to as TBS. Essentially, TBS or "clean smoke" has more desirables of carbonyls (color components) and phenolics (aromatic compounds).
Thick white smoke (TWS) or "dirty smoke" is the result of incomplete combustion and creates undesirables, namely wood creosote, which results in an acrid taste on your food.
While TWS can have some applications, as a beginner, your goal should be thin blue smoke.
Keep in mind, don't fret about having tons of white smoke at the beginning of a smoke (first 20 minutes or so) - this is usually just a result of moisture. Even placing your food on the grates during this period is totally fine.
The only time white smoke becomes an issue is when you're smoking something like a Brisket or Pork butt for 10+ hours and you have white smoke the entire time* - the end result is likely a bitter taste from wood creosote.
*By saying this, I also mean that you can get away with smoking Chicken, Turkey, Salmon, Pork Ribs - all your shorter cooks - with white smoke and have no issues.
Fortunately, there are a number of meats to smoke that are perfect for beginners.
A hard and fast answer are the following:
In my opinion, the first meat that every beginner should smoke first is a Boston butt or pork butt. It's a larger cut of meat and you'll be able to learn a few different techniques.
Keep in mind, there are distinct differences between pork butt and pork shoulder (picnic).
For starters, you'll be able to learn about the meat selection process and what to look for in a grocery store. Pork butt should have a firm white fat cap and evenly marbled Intramuscular fat.
A typical boneless pork butt in a grocery store will be 3-4 lbs - A typical bone-in pork butt will be 6-8 lbs.
As a beginner, buying a pork butt that's bone-in can be super useful as an indicator of doneness; When the meat is tender, the bone will entirely pull away from the pork butt and the meat will fall off the bone (pictured below).
You'll learn about binders like mustard that are commonly used with pork cuts. The binder works as a glue to adhere the dry rub layer to the meat. This helps in the smoking process to encourage a better bark.
Pork pairs nicely with sweet flavors from different types of brown sugar (as well as white sugar), agave nectar, syrups, and honey. You can also be fairly generous with barbecue rubs - beneficial for beginners with heavy hands - as it's hard to overpower the pork flavor itself due to being a larger cut of meat.
The same could be said for different types of wood - cherry and apple for a light sweet smoke combined with Oak and hickory for smokey flavor. As a personal preference, I'm big on Cherry and Pecan with Pork
Since Pork Butt is a larger cut of meat, it's prone to stalling. At around 150-160F the meat is typically wrapped (often called Texas Crutching) in order to combat the moisture wicking properties of the meat.
You'll learn about spritzing meat during the smoking process. Spritzing helps to prevent the bark from drying out. It also helps to further add moisture for smoke particles to adhere too.
In terms of fish, salmon is one of the most popular for smoking - this is mainly because of it's fat content - the fat will help to take on more smoke.
While some might argue that smoking fish isn't a good idea for a beginner, it teaches a few different techniques that are useful for other meats. You can also get away with using white smoke for a short period of time without the meat being compromised by a lot of bitter smoke particles.
Namely, you'll consider hot smoking (between 150 - 300F) or cold smoking (below 80F).
You may also choose to wet brine. Unlike larger cuts of meat, the fish doesn't need to brine for long; It will take roughly 15 minutes to brine per 1/2 inch of thickness.
A brine is as simple as salt and water - A good starting point is a tablespoon of kosher salt per cup of water; You'll need roughly a quart of brine (4 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of kosher salt). It's also not uncommon for people to add other ingredients like peppercorns, sugar, etc.
I'm a big fan of oak with salmon, however Alder is the more traditional wood that's used. Since smoked salmon doesn't take long, you may even consider using a strong smoke wood like mesquite.
When smoking, maintain 150F for one to two hours - this allows enough time for the fish to actually take-on smoke. After two hours, increase the temperature to 200F until finished - Salmon is considered safe to eat at least 165F.
For some reason a lot of resources like to tell beginners to smoke pork ribs like baby backs. While they're something a lot of people associate with "barbecue food," there is definitely a learning curve.
In my opinion, for a beginner, the better option are beef ribs - more specifically, beef back ribs. However, even beef plate or short ribs are just as easy.
Note: I do not believe in the 3-2-1 method for pork ribs. Namely because it's against the grain for what constitutes rib doneness. Timed increments rarely make sense when it comes to smoking meat. You should always smoke meat according to probe tenderness, internal temperature, and color.
Beef back ribs are sourced from the dorsal area of the steer; After the ribeye muscle or prime rib has been removed. Meaning, you get heavy marbled intercostal ribeye meat (between the ribs).
Note: Their industry code is IMPS #124
For a number of reasons, preparing/smoking beef back ribs is less involved:
I have an entire article/recipe for beef back ribs, the process is fairly straightforward.
In terms of poultry, chicken is fairly cheap and pretty hard to mess up.
One of the biggest benefits of smoking chicken is that there isn't much to really worry about in the meat selection process. With something like Pork Butt and Beef Ribs, you might be confused by USDA grading and what constitutes a good piece of meat.
While the USDA grades chicken for quality and assigns either an A, B, or C, at retail you're apt to only see USDA A Grade chicken.
The USDA describes A grade as, "...plump, meaty bodies and clean skin, free of bruises, broken bones, feathers, cuts and discoloration." It's unlikely that consumers would see Grades B and C as they are usually reserved for meat that is cut up, chopped, or ground.
Meaning, all you have to do is go to the grocery store, and buy your chicken based on weight - a 2.5 - 4 lb chicken will serve three to four people.
You may consider using a number of different methods to smoke with:
Note: Beer-can chicken is a gimmick at best. As the saying goes, all beer-can chicken does is ruin a good can of beer. The idea being that it's similar to smoking with a water pan - even in the case of a water pan, using beer in place of water does nothing to add to flavor. With beer-can chicken, the beer won't even boil.
More often than not, the chicken is unevenly cooked as the thighs are closer to the heat source than the breast - you may even run into issues where safety is a real problem as the can will deflect heat.
One of the biggest issues that people tend to run into with chicken is rubbery chicken skin. However this problem is easily mitigated by manipulating temperatures in your smoker or by finishing the chicken off in the oven via broiling.
Meaning, you could simply start at a higher temperature when you smoke (300-350 F) or, once the internal temperature hits 165F (temperature probe the thickest part of the chicken breast), bring the bird inside and place in the oven for 2-4 minutes to broil.
Something I personally do with my pellet grill chicken wings is use corn starch to make the skin as crispy as possible. You can also incorporate 2-3 tablespoons of corn starch with your chicken rub and still smoke at 225-250F.
Whole chicken is one of my favorite things to smoke because it's cheap and there are a number of different techniques you can do and try out. It's also a fairly quick smoke and will take roughly 3 hours.
Almost no resources mention bologna - which is super strange because bologna is by far one of the easiest deli meats to smoke; Namely because bologna is a cured sausage and ready to eat.
All that's required is a bologna "chub", a barbecue dry rub - or simply dark brown sugar and smoked paprika, and barbecue sauce to glaze.
Be sure to check out my guide/recipe on how to smoke bologna.
The biggest reason to smoke bologna is that it's very hard to mess up, considering the smoke time is roughly 3 hours. If you manage to somehow mess up though, bologna is also super cheap - The chub above was $4.
One of my favorite parts about bologna is the small bologna burnt ends.